Why Europe cares about the exponential success of Photonics

The recently launched Juncker Investment Package by the European Commission means €315 billion over the next three years will be set aside to establish strategic innovation hubs to boost Europe’s future growth. The re-industrialization of the European economy has become a major priority. There’s now a clear focus of funds on technologies that generate business.

Photonics is a so-called “key enabling technology”, bringing growth and jobs back to Europe. It is the technology engine needed to keep the globe communicating and connected in the 21st century. Photonics represents the backbone of the European Digital Agenda and the Horizon 2020 programs that enables Europe’s businesses to take advantage of the mega-trend. This includes the benefits of the big data revolution, cloud computing, and cutting-edge technology, which are all prerequisites in order to implement the concept of advanced manufacturing.

What is photonics?
Photonics is the science of light. It is the technology of generating, controlling, and detecting light waves and photons, which are particles of light. The characteristics of the waves and photons can be used to explore the universe, cure diseases, communicate with others and create new sensors.

Scientists have been studying light for hundreds of years. Photonics explores a wide variety of wavelengths, from gamma rays to radio, including X-rays, UV, visible and infrared light. The word Photonics was first used around 1960, when the laser was invented.

Photonics is ubiquitous
Light waves are a part of our everyday life. Photonics is everywhere; in consumer electronics (barcode scanners, DVD players, remote TV control), telecommunications (internet), health (eye surgery, medical instruments), manufacturing industry (laser cutting and machining), defence and border-control (infrared camera, remote sensing), entertainment (holography, laser shows), etc.

Photonics is at the heart of the Internet highway that provides the bandwidth, speed, reach and flexibility needed to run exciting new applications that everyone knows – streaming video, social media, cloud computing and voice over IP. It’s the most energy efficient technology to scale up all these services.

The challenge: every smart phone needs to be connected.

The exponential demand for bandwidth in the world means that light has replaces copper as the enabler of the Internet.

  • In the first three months of 2015, over 200 million smartphones were sold worldwide, each demanding access to a data centre.
  • Every second, two households are being connected to the fibre-optic Internet infrastructure.
  • And every 18 months, the amount of data doubles for each connection.

Existing semiconductor technology can’t keep up with this pace of change. So we need a different approach to cope with the growth, or plan hundreds of extra power stations to run these datacentres. And behind the scenes, around €30 billion a year is being invested in switching equipment to make the hubs work.

Integrated Photonics technology will move communications into the terabit era by dramatically increasing both data capacity and data transmission speeds, while simultaneously reducing the Internet’ carbon footprint and the overall cost per bit. Photonics technology will help overcome current limitations of electronics in computers through all-optical computing or even quantum computing.

And photonics is about to help revolutionize medicine and aviation – from the development of “needleless” technologies for monitoring diabetics’ blood sugar levels to tiny cameras smaller than pills that can travel within arteries. Sensor applications in smart power grids, aeroplane wings, smart buildings and smart industrial process control will contribute significantly to more efficient use of resources and meeting environmental challenges.

So what just happened?
Engineers in Eindhoven have led the research and development of light technology since the 1960’s. But only relatively recently have researchers realised they need new approaches as light technology is integrated onto microchips.

Until now, innovation in Photonics has only been open to large corporate enterprises with deep pockets. The cost of making each prototype chip has been more than half a million Euro. But research at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) and on High Tech Campus Eindhoven has changed that.

Professor Meint Smit and his team of engineers & researchers have worked with local entrepreneurs to bring innovative Photonics design teams together and manufacture prototype chips for a fraction of the cost.

Democratizing Photonics
The cost of manufacturing an indium phosphide photonics chip dropped from €200,000 to around €10,000 – a dramatic difference to development costs in buildings of integrated photonics chips. It turns the impossible into possible.

The key breakthrough has been the development of a process design kit. And the process design kit allows designers to create their chips without having to understand or re-invent the underlying technology. The good news is that these kits are getting better all the time.

Multi-project chip services, continual investment needed.
Tu/e has led the research to democratize the chip-making process, so students, researchers and start-ups can now afford to realize and test breakthrough designs. Using generic building blocks, they put several designs together on a single chip, sharing resources to produce designs in small quantities.

In the last 15 years, Tu/e has invested €115 million in building the Eindhoven Photonics advantage.  They established the Nanolab clean room needed for the development, measurement and calibration of these advanced technologies. The Nanolab is the most advanced clean-room facility in the Netherlands, becoming a Dutch national resource dedicated to Photonics. It’s a now a major asset in both attracting and retaining photonics-related talent and business in the Brainport region.

Mark your calendar for September 23rd
On Wednesday September 23rd there will be a one-day conference at High Tech Campus Eindhoven dedicated to the huge business opportunities that lie ahead for Photonics.

The event will explore why business, investors and researchers need to continue to lead the world, demonstrate the great achievements so far, and showcase surprising examples of what’s just round the corner.

The conference programme is in the advanced planning stage and there is an early-bird discount. More details at www.phiconference.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.